Chef Ross Lewis tells of cooking for the Queen and the lessons he learned from the recession
Ross Lewis is recalling the finest meal he ever ate. It was in the summer of 2005 at Pierre Gagnaire at 6 rue Balzac in the 8th arrondissement of Paris. "I had a symphony of five desserts."
It was far from a symphony of five desserts you were reared in Bishopstown in Cork, I say.
"That is correct!" he laughs. "My mother used to cook me rice pudding as a kid for dessert. But Pierre was well ahead of the trends. His food is grounded in great flavour - not stunts." The Irish chef, who opened Chapter One in February 1993 with Martin Corbett, must have thought it was bordering on the stunt when Barbara Streisand arrived into his restaurant on Parnell Square at 1.30am in July, 2007. The booking was for midnight.
Ms Streisand had lobster with turbot cooked on the bone, and broccoli puree. Her pet dog, however, had a Hereford beef fillet, middle rare. "He must have liked it," Ross remembers with a smile, "because he cleared the plate."
There must have been moments in the economic downturn when Ross - and many other restaurateurs in Ireland - thought that the recession was going to clear the customers out of his establishment.
On the Wednesday afternoon I came into Chapter One (which was awarded its Michelin star in 2007), the establishment was full of people enjoying its famous fare. Ross is philosophical about whether the restaurant industry has fully returned to health. "There has been a slow recovery over the last two years and, in particular, we're hearing more positive sentiment from business clients over the last year," he says. "Discretionary spend is definitely on the rise."
Is the recession over? "Anecdotal evidence, from the restaurant sector, would suggest that there is a definite upturn in the city centre; with the suburbs absorbing the recovery a bit more slowly," he says, "and that country restaurants are experiencing a more positive sentiment but still trading in more difficult circumstances with the majority of the business coming from the weekend only."
There is, he continues, an increasingly vibrant middle market as a result of a shift in dining trends coupled with a younger customer whose social habits are moving from a more traditional night in the pub to include a dining experience.
In terms of lessons learned from the recent past, Ross adds: "I guess it's always good to have your client base spread over different sectors, so you're not relying on just any one sector. It's always good to have a good portion of customers spending their own money. It's also important to develop a strong and personal relationship with your clients based on their particular needs. I felt it was always important to give value to customers even in the time of the boom so that in the event of a downturn they would continue to support you.
"Being true to yourself and your customers - and not letting your business be a influenced by the economic backdrop at that time - I think stood to us well. I suppose as someone who employs people on a full-time basis and bears the responsibility for all that happens," he says, "it's pretty scary to think that sometimes all your hard work and effort can be brought to an end by circumstances outside of your control. Now that is stressful."
The Michelin-starred chef knew a bit about stress when he cooked for the Queen and 170 other grandees at Dublin Castle on May 18, 2011. Despite weeks of prepping the food (smoked and cured wild salmon followed by Angus beef plate), the Cork man didn't get to meet Her Maj. On February 21st, 2012, Ross did get to press the flesh with one of his all-time heroes - eventually.
Al Pacino came into Chapter One one evening for a feed (he had ravioli of 36-month-old Parmesan with artichokes and girolle mushroom). The iconic star of The Godfather was soon surrounded by a horde eager for a word. "I thought I would not get near him," recalls Ross. "So I waited at the reception and when he got up to go to the bathroom, I said: 'Mr Pacino, really nice to meet you. My name is Ross Lewis and I am the chef here. I just wanted to tell you are the most important person here tonight besides myself. Would you like to have your picture taken with me?'"
Spoken like a man who gave the recession a good grilling.